Shades of grey

There are enough quality young players of colour in South Africa to ensure quotas are no longer necessary at schools level, writes GRANT BALL in SA Rugby magazine.

The U18 Craven Week is meant to be the pinnacle of the South African schoolboy rugby season, but since its inception in 1964, its selection system has been flawed. In the early days, during apartheid, the best black schoolboys weren’t allowed to play, and in post-1994 South Africa, some of the best white players have missed out, in many cases because of the quota system.

For this year’s Craven Week held in Welkom, nine of the players in each 22-man squad had to be players of colour, with five on the field for the entire match on day one, four on day two, and five again on the Saturday.

However, the 50-50 racial quota for the SA Schools side was scrapped this year. Fourteen white players were named in the match 22 and the general consensus was that all eight players of colour had been selected on merit.

Saru’s high-performance manager Herman Masimla acknowledges that Craven Week is the envy of the rest of the rugby-playing world. But if the tournament doesn’t help to produce good results for age-group national teams, it’s not reaching its objective.

The SA U18 team’s 45-13 defeat to their English counterparts last year was a wake-up call, as was the SA U20 side’s third successive bronze medal at the Junior World Championship.

‘This is an elite programme, so we want the best,’ says Masimla. ‘This year there was a synergy between rewarding players who performed at Craven Week, and the requirements of producing a squad capable of winning at U20 level.’

But if SA Schools sides are to be selected on merit in future, shouldn’t the provincial teams do the same?

Western Province U18 coach Chris October, who fulfilled the same role with last year’s SA Schools outfit, believes quota selections have played a valuable role in a unique country like South Africa, but that there’s no longer a need for them.

‘At schools level, we’re able to pick on merit,’ he says. ‘You just have to look at the composition of the SA U20 side to see that we don’t require quotas anymore.’

October notes that certain players of colour are immediately labelled as quota selections, even in cases where they’re actually better than the white players in the same position. He says the only way this stereotyping will stop is if quotas are dropped.

‘Speaking as a previously disadvantaged person, if you talk to all black players, 99% of them will tell you they don’t want to be tagged as a quota player. They all want to be selected on merit alone.

‘We want a situation where we just regard the players as human beings and then select the side. If all 15 of the best players are black or all 15 are white in a particular year, then so be it. Those teams must just be selected.

‘It’s important that the work is done at grassroots level. If all South Africans are being given an equal opportunity, players will come through naturally and we can select teams on merit.’

Western Province, Eastern Province, Boland and Border regularly meet the transformation requirements at U18 level on merit, and at times exceed them. The problem is that inland unions, such as the Golden Lions, Blue Bulls and Free State, don’t have as many players of colour to select from.

This has led to many individuals from coastal areas being given bursaries to schools up north, but Lions U18 coach Gollie Gouws, who was October’s assistant with SA Schools last year, says it’s still tough finding enough quality players in those regions, and that the quota for each union should depend on the number of black players in their region.

‘At the Lions’ final trials, we only had 42 black players out of 112 schools to choose from. Twenty of those 42 have to be selected [nine for Craven Week and 11 for the 22-man Academy Week squad]. To put that into context, only one player of colour at our final trials had been playing rugby at one of our high schools for all five years. We had to bring the rest in from the Eastern Cape.’

Gouws says transformation is about picking a black player over a white one when they possess similar abilities, but in certain cases the players aren’t comparable.

‘The numbers are favoured heavily against white players coming through. It would be good to have a little bit of relief in terms of the numbers, because we don’t want to be unfair to white players, which is the case at the moment. We are losing white players to other unions and to rugby.’

Selecting the best squad of 22 always creates problems as it’s a subjective process, where coaches and selectors will favour certain individuals. However, in the past five years there have been some highly contentious omissions from Craven Week.

Four players who missed out on selection for their provinces are Bjorn Basson, Francois Hougaard, Mathew Turner and PW van Vuuren.

Springbok wing Basson’s ommission from Border’s Craven Week side was a case of talent not being identified as other black wingers were selected ahead of him.

Another current Bok, Francois Hougaard, missed out on Western Province Craven Week selection due to quotas, and he eventually moved to the Bulls.

Turner was the country’s leading try-scorer in schoolboy rugby in 2006 (28 in 17 matches) and he added another 146 points with the boot, but surprisingly he wasn’t deemed good enough to play for Western Province. Turner did play for WP U19 the following year, but when he wasn’t selected for the SA U20 or SA Sevens sides after being the Varsity Cup’s leading try-scorer in 2008, he turned his back on South Africa. He now plays for Bristol and the England Sevens side.

Van Vuuren’s case is an extraordinary one. Emphasising how difficult it is for provinces such as Free State to fill their Craven Week quota, the Grey College 1st XV hooker wasn’t selected in his Grade 11 year, with his place being taken by a schoolmate who was in the 5th XV.

Van Vuuren, though, was selected for Craven Week the following year and went on to play for SA Schools and SA U20. He says his mental strength prevented him from becoming disillusioned like other players in similar situations.

‘It was an awful time. It really sucked because I’d worked hard to make it into the Grey 1st XV. To then not make Free State’s Craven Week side – which is a weakened Grey side – because of quotas, was a setback.

For me, the main thing was to not get upset, lose confidence and think that I wasn’t good enough to play at that level. I chose to look at the positives. I’ve always said, if you’re good enough, you’ll make it – it may just take a bit longer.

‘Quotas are not a bad thing, as they are helping to make the game more representative, and the guy who took my place wasn’t a bad guy. I wasn’t mad at him, because it wasn’t his choice. It was just an irritating situation.

‘At senior level we see that the best players always come through. There aren’t quotas at senior provincial level because unions have to pay their players, and they can’t afford to contract sub-standard guys. The Boks also select the best players possible, with  the exception of one or two surprises.’

SA Rugby magazine has an extremely reliable source who says a similar situation to Van Vuuren’s occurred with this year’s Western Province Craven Week side.

A black player from a local school had been identified as a talent for the future due to his size and skill, but he was dropped from his school’s 1st XV after a poor season and his place was ironically filled by another black player. Yet he was still selected for WP, even though he couldn’t play trials because he was out for five weeks due to injury.

However, October denies this. ‘I help select the side, and I seriously don’t know anything about that.’

Gouws says there are many cases where the black player is the best in his position, but in the few instances when the player clearly isn’t good enough, it does him more harm than good to be selected. He adds that some players of colour drop their standards at trials because they realise there are certain spots in a squad earmarked for quota players.

‘Sometimes quota players measure themselves against the other quota players in their position at trials,’ says Gouws. ‘Instead of measuring themselves against the 12 best wings, they compete against the three best black wings.

‘We have good young black players who are coming through on merit. Monde Hadebe, who played hooker for SA Schools in 2008, is the perfect example; he came through on his own ability. If the guys are good enough, that’s wonderful and they must be selected. The problem is when you’re forced to pick them.

‘In the past, the SA Schools selectors were obliged to look at black players in certain positions, such as hooker, scrumhalf and the utility backs. They picked guys so they wouldn’t get fingers pointed at them.

‘But last year we had to pick a 56kg scrumhalf from Dale [Bongi Kobese], because the Paul Roos captain [Rick Schroeder] was injured after Craven Week. That meant we had the eighth or ninth best scrumhalf playing against England U18. I looked at all his stats after the physical testing, and his muscle percentage and tone were poor. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good player, but in a match of that nature, he was found out.’

Considering all these factors, it’s no surprise that the SA Schools side was embarrassed 45-13 by their England counterparts.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this story before. In 2005, diminutive Mandilakhe Tile from Dale was selected for SA Schools, and a year later he moved up to the Bulls. He hasn’t played for a single representative side since.

Tile is not alone and from the SA Schools side that lost 30-24 to SA Academy five years ago, similar stories exist for Charlton Prinsloo, Riacco Eilerd and Malungisa Nkosi, even though they’re only 23.

Dries van der Wal is considered an authority on schools rugby after coaching Grey Bloem for over 20 years from the mid-80s. He was involved with Free State Schools for 10 years and SA Schools for six until he stepped down in 2007, and as an educationalist he’s watched the game and country change.

Like October and Gouws, he’s emphatic that quotas have served their purpose, pointing to the large number of players coming through in various positions at top 20 schools such as Paul Roos, Paarl Gym, Glenwood, Selborne, Grey PE, and Maritzburg College.

‘South African schools are doing their utmost to transform the game,’ says Van der Wal. ‘The coastal regions don’t struggle with quota numbers, but the interior does because there are less people of colour who play rugby. There are positives and negatives to quotas, and some good rugby players have come through because of them. But we’ve reached a point where we can pick teams on merit. There are brilliant young players coming through – recent Craven Weeks have been filled with them.’

Van der Wal doesn’t believe coaches will start to ignore black players if quotas are done away with, because they will continue to select their best team.

‘I listen to the coaches and the way they speak, and there has been a mind shift,’ he says. ‘They give credit to all the players – no matter what colour. There are very few coaches who see race at our school. We know we must go for the best players because we have to produce results. We are very positive about developing players of colour.

‘We must also remember that the country has changed since 1994, and some of those coaches’ best friends are black. Of course you get exceptions – from both whites and blacks – but young people have forgotten about the past and they want to move on and forget about the black-white, quota thing.’

Van der Wal wants quotas at Craven Week to be phased out over the next few years.

‘Many of us coaches go out and develop players of colour because we know we need them and they add value. We can’t do away with quotas immediately, but they should be reduced from year to year. For example, next year they should drop it from nine to seven. There are more than enough black players for the SA Schools selectors.’

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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